Law360 (June 1, 2020, 8:35 PM EDT) -- In this edition of Coronavirus Q&A, a Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC partner representing people who have suffered catastrophic injuries, who also serves as an advocate for trial attorneys, discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected client intake and lobbying efforts.
Leslie M. Kroeger
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How has the crisis affected your practice?
We have had to learn to adapt as an entire office, giving everyone the ability to work from home and making sure our systems, from a technology standpoint, are capable and amenable to getting work done. It's taken a little bit more thought to keep things moving. Fortunately, everyone has adapted well so I'm pleased with how things have gone, but it's definitely been harder on everyone.
We are hoping to open [the office] soon and that's been a struggle, too — figuring out the appropriate guidelines, like how many people can we have in our space and what type of plexiglass we need. The last thing we want is for someone to get sick and for it to spread, which would cause a health crisis in our space. My practice group encompasses the entire Florida office so I've been spending a lot of admin time figuring out the right way to open, and that's a whole 'nother level of responsibility.
Has the pandemic affected your firm's client intake?
I don't think it's affected the firmwide intake. Within the Florida office we do a lot of individual cases. We handle catastrophic injuries from product defects, motor vehicle accidents and medical malpractice. We've seen a slowdown in accidents and elective surgeries, which can result in medical malpractice injuries. Those may have slowed down a bit, but for the most part our numbers are steady so we've been blessed in that regard.
We don't have clients physically coming in, but we are using telephones and Zoom and whatever the clients are comfortable with. Between Zoom, FaceTime and [Microsoft] Teams, there are plenty of ways to meet with clients. Most clients have smartphones so Zoom works just fine on that.
The only time we've had an issue connecting with someone was for a deposition. But there are vendors who will literally deliver a laptop and help set it up. We've had to use that once. But for client purposes, we haven't had any [communication] issues yet. Knock on wood.
What are some of the coronavirus-related issues your clients have faced?
We haven't experienced too many issues. We did have one client who needed masks. He is receiving care from a home health agency and when this all started they wouldn't come out because they had no masks and he didn't have any masks. So he told us about the issue and we ended up ordering them for him so that he could receive care.
What is the status of jury trials in Florida?
Everything is on hold right now. Any jury trials that start up would involve the criminal system, for the most part. They are looking at virtual systems and, alternatively, they are looking at spacing in the courthouse. The courts are seriously looking at the issue trying to figure out the best thing to do not only for those who have cases pending but also the safety of the jurors.
But there have been lots of hearings going on. Florida courts have really been pushing those and judges have been pretty aggressive about getting hearings done. We're lucky in Florida; I think some other states weren't even doing hearings.
Do you think virtual hearings conducted via Zoom will stick in the future?
I think Zoom is going to stick for a couple of different reasons. Based on what judges have been saying, they like it and are cognizant of the fact that if I have a hearing in Miami, that's an hour-and-a-half to two-hour drive for me, and they are cognizant of the time that attorneys spend in getting there.
From the judges I've heard from, [virtual hearings] help them manage their time better and they can fit in more hearings. And now that they are used to them, I really do think that will stick and that will be a great thing.
Judges are getting better and better about setting up how they want [virtual hearings] to work. Those judges and attorneys who were not familiar with the technology are really comfortable with it now. With how much travel time it saves, it also saves expense for the client and is much more economical. That doesn't mean that people won't travel — you still have to meet people in person — but if courts continue to offer it, people will continue to take them up on it.
As president of the Florida Justice Association, how has the need to work remotely affected your lobbying efforts?
Fortunately, the [legislative] session ended March 14. We were all lucky to get out of town and go home and shelter in place. When the session is not in, there's not much lobbying going on, and the last I've heard there will be no special session. It will be back on the regular timing, which will be in November when people will gather back in the capital.
We are going to wait and see. I don't know what life will look like in November and if there's a recurrence and things might be put into place in the capital, within the Senate and the House.
Do you think any legislative hearings will be conducted virtually?
I don't know. That would be pretty amazing if they would allow it. Committee rooms are generally packed, and if they don't do virtual hearings I would imagine they would have to limit the number of people allowed to come in.
There has been talk at the federal and state level regarding granting businesses immunity for COVID-19 infection suits. What is the most important thing Florida policymakers could do for the trial attorneys lobby? Would it be nothing?
At this point, if lawmakers could resist the urge to give blanket immunity or change the parameters [of the court system] ... a big nothing on that would be great. I know they certainly have their work cut out for them on the budget because the Florida tourism industry has taken such a hit. Frankly, I think they have enough to worry about without diving into the court system and affecting the rights of everyone who lives here.
What are some impacts of the pandemic that have flown under the radar?
Globally, there are the mental health aspects that people have to be mindful of and careful about because there is less socialization, and that can affect people. On the other hand, I think people have gotten to know their families better, which is a good thing. Recognizing what is important in life.
From a legal standpoint, law firms and attorneys have worked very hard to make sure we are providing good quality service to clients and potential clients. And the court system has worked very hard to accommodate our cases to the best of its ability. Everyone is looking forward to a time where we can get back to a jury situation but doing it safely and in a positive way.
--Editing by Breda Lund.
Check out Law360's previous installments of Coronavirus Q&A.
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